Ahoy There! An Excellent Swashbuckling RPG!

August 8, 2009
A fanciful new RPG from the people who brought us Spirit of the Century

A fanciful new RPG from the people who brought us Spirit of the Century

Opening Salvo

“Air pirates? AIR PIRATES!” I shouted with glee as I seized the Swashbucklers of the 7 Skies from the “Indie Press Role-Playing Games” section of my local comics/gaming store. Completely un-phased by the $30 I was about ready to fork over for a softcover, I ran to the cashier and exclaimed with elation: “You know you’ve finally got a tabletop RPG about air pirates?” He shot me a look back.
“Well, there was always Skyrealms of Jorune, Castle Falkenstein,” he said, tallying them on his fingers. “And we just got a new steampunk book in: Victoriana.” The wind still billowing my sails, I laid it down on the counter and said in my most gallant voice: “Avast! my good sir, for this one appears to be good.” And he took my money.


A few words of explanation are warranted before I dive into a thorough review of said book purchase.  First of all, why the heck was I looking for a book in the “Indie Press Role-Playing Games” section of the store anyway?  Well, it just so happens that I A) live in western Massachusetts, a kind of mini-Mecca for the budding independent role-playing game designer (give the proximity of New York and Boston and number of nerdly college grads in the area), and B) regularly run these people’s RPGs at local and national gaming conventions.  Having been a convention gamemaster (GM) for 16 years and counting, I’ve discovered that this is where all the action is happening these days. These games (by which I mean my Top 11: Primetime Adventures, InSpectres, Mist-Robed Gate, 1,001 Nights, Dread, Dogs in the Vineyard, Shock, Annalise, Misspent Youth, Tales of the Fisherman’s Wife, Shooting the Moon) are the best in system design, the most conscious of social exigencies involved in the role-playing hobby, and the most academically cross-referenced and critiqued.  Many are designed by women, and most by graduates of small liberal arts colleges.  All I have to say is: check them out.  They are the future.

Furthermore, I’d like to say for the record that I’m not really a pirates fan per se (otherwise I’d be reviewing 7th Sea here), but for some reason I really dig the idea of air pirates.  I attribute it to an unhealthy amount of Skies of Arcadia played and Last Exile viewed while I was in college, as well as a desperate urge to see a kind of Star Wars-style epic played out in skyships – as opposed to space in a galaxy far, far away controlled by an indifferent, bearded Lucas-man.

A Brief Summary

Swashbucklers of the 7 Skies (S7S), written by Chad Underkoffler (whom I think I met at Dreamation 2008, and who wrote some great Unknown Armies supplements), is a game of fast-paced, swashbuckling action set in a world where islands float in a vast sky over a mysterious substance called the Blue.  Players create characters intended to accomplish great feats of derring-do and, without much ado, dive headlong into dangerous situations for a chance at eternal glory.  The system is designed on the Prose Descriptive Qualities (PDQ) model, which is synonymous with quick task resolution and immediate character empowerment (as opposed to waiting sessions and sessions to become effective against the big, bad mega-villain, characters in S7S tend to be ready to take him on right out the gate).

It’s a Big Sky Out There

A full four chapters of this book are devoted to the dense setting of the 7 Skies, which ironically serves the primary purpose of catapulting characters into the action without bogging them down with too much back-story.  A kind of fantastical pseudo-18th Century world order is established among 6 primary sky islands and a plethora of secondary islands.  There are the intrigue-obsessed Barathi (more like 16th Century Italy under the Borges — noble houses and poison, etc.), the resolute Viridese (Nordic/Scandinavian-type folks), the passionate Colronan Royalty (France), their neighbors the aloof Colronan Zultanistas (Ottoman Turks), the cosmopolitan Crailese (think 19th Century New York with some religious nutjobs outside the city limits), the ascetic Sha Ka Ruq (a cross between the Congo and Japan — Orientalism meets Token Fetishism, but I digress), the rebellious Ilwuzi (a pirate isle in the Caribbean) and the lost island of Kroy (Atlantis… or Laputa).  Each nationality is basically an excuse to have a different flavor of sword-wielding badass, from a weapon-snapping, fur-wearing Viridese to a tough-talking, cutlass-bearing Ilwuzi and so forth.  Magic and skyships are smoothly integrated into a world system that is believable as a fantasy setting – Underkoffler did a great job of creating a world that’s basically one giant opportunity for adventure where one nevertheless knows what to expect in each port, so to speak.  Read enough of his Bibliography – with entries from Wu Ch’eng-en to Alexandre Dumas, from Neil Gaiman (Stardust, of course!) to Rafael Sabatini – and you will understand that the world exists to put crazily passionate people with swords at odds with each other in dangerous, exotic, and breathtakingly beautiful locales.

System, Shmystem

The PDQ system is also particularly well-executed in this book.  I played Spirit of the Century – another Evil Hat production and an RPG-geneaological predecessor to S7S that has you generate pulp characters who are starring in a number of cross-overs – and found it to be surprisingly difficult to master at first.  S7S, however, seems to have struck an enviably perfect balance between – using the terms of Ron Edwards’ Big Model theory – Setting Simulationism, Style Simulationism, and Narrativism.  “Whoa!” you say, reaching for your musket.  “Where’d all these landlubber ‘-isms’ blow into port from?”  In simpler terms, the game does a good job of A) giving players a deep and enriching established world to explore, B) allowing stylistic tropes from swashbuckling books/movies to become game mechanics (i.e., you can have your cape flapping in the wind give you game benefits), and C) encouraging creativity in the storytelling realm, as opposed to that of maximizing personal player power.  In S7S, if you succeed with your dice roll, you may narrate how you succeed.  If you fail, you get points toward giving your character an extra oomph in the future and can choose to narrate how they botched this job.  It allows for and encourages Princess Bride-style antics in the way that games like 7th Sea only vaguely dreamed about.

One of the nicer bits of the system is a comprehensive ship combat system that revolves around teamwork – a captain giving orders to a crew in the heat of battle – while preserving a dueling system that emphasizes the primacy of individual coolness.  Another is the Style Dice mechanic:  players get handed dice to use in their favor if the GM decides to screw them over rather nastily.  There is an economy established that notably resembles the narrative economy one witnesses in swashbuckling fiction.  All suffering becomes more pleasurable when the hero can take the sweeter reward in the end.

Why You Should Get This Game in Great Haste

Actually, you should be checking out all the RPGs I mentioned in my Preface:  they’re the games so many of us were waiting for as we hunkered down in our mediocre games of D&D and Shadowrun, waiting for some narrative control to be handed back to us.  Why you should go pick up a copy of S7S is simple:  few games are as accessible, intuitive and richly devoted to players’ creative well-being as this one.  Now I’m off to liberate a Crailese freighter of its most burdensome cargo!

Show me the money

September 22, 2007

From a very young age, I have been fascinated with space. I was born well after the Apollo landings were over, but I still found myself riveted by the film that those astronauts brought back with them from the moon. Even in black and white, and under the constraints of the difficult circumstances they faced in filming their time there, that footage has the power to captivate me, even now. I’ve been sad to see the excitement about space exploration that was such a huge part of the American experience in the 1950s and 60s slowly slip out of the collective consciousness in this country. I still find that sense of wonder I suspect I shared with all children looking at the night sky tugging at me.

The recent excitement surrounding the Ansari X-Prize, which awarded ten million dollars to the first company to build a privately-funded spacecraft to achieve low earth orbit twice in two weeks, made me feel like some of that sense of wonder about space was returning. I heard people who had never shown any particular interest in space exploration or even in science in general talking about it, and it never failed to make me smile.

Now, there is a new X-prize up for grabs. This time, the prize has been doubled to twenty million dollars, and will be awarded for the first private venture to soft-land a rover on the moon. The robot will have to complete certain tasks to win the prize, but the short version is that a private venture has to build a viable scientific rover and safely land it on the moon within the next five years. The race to innovate at the bleeding edge of aerospace technology is once again in the running.

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Finding Fosset

September 4, 2007

Various news sources are reporting that Steve Fosset is missing. A man famous for his adventuring in a wide array of venues, Mr Fosset holds world records for such things as having logged more flight miles than any other pilot, being the first man to fly a plane around the world solo without refueling, and being the first person to fly a balloon around the world solo. He took off from a private airfield on Monday morning in a single engine plane, and was reported missing Monday evening when he did not return.

For a person who has set more than a hundred records for a whole host of things, some sixty of which remain unbroken, this flight was just part of an ongoing search for further challenges. Mr Fosset seems to have taken this flight in an attempt to locate a dry lake bed that could be used to test a vehicle in which he apparently hopes to set the world land speed record. Flying from a private airfield in Nevada and using visual navigation, he was not required to file a flight plan, which has made locating him more difficult.

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As sure as the sun will rise

August 9, 2007

When I moved several months ago, one of the major tasks I had to face was finding a place to live. While personal matters (living close to my significant other) were certainly the primary factor in my choice, I, like most people, considered a wide array of other issues as well. Things like the cost of rent, proximity to my new job and the grocery store, the neighborhood around where I live, and the lack or availability of particular amenities like air conditioning in the dwelling all factored into my decision.

While driving to work today, I realized that there was a hugely important consideration that I had entirely neglected, and which I suspect most other people entirely ignore when looking for a new home. Since I’ve moved, I have found that my commute to and from work has been notably less onerous than it used to be. This is strange to me, because my drive is not really any shorter than it ever was, and if anything, the traffic is worse. In spite of this, my whole experience is improved by the simple fact that I now live East of where I work.

Living to the east of my workplace is great because it means that when I am driving into work in the morning, I am heading West, with the rising sun at my back. In the evening, driving Eastward home, the setting sun is once again at my back. Prior to my move, the opposite was true.

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Pretty, Pretty Fordite

July 31, 2007

Here is a strange and interesting thing: Fordite.

Fordite Cabochon

A coworker pointed me at the website, and it is fascinating stuff. As their site explains:

Fordite is a unique automotive enamel material, with an interesting history. The original layered automotive paint slag “rough” was made incidentally, years ago, by the now extinct practice of hand spray-painting multiples of production cars in big automotive factories.The oversprayed paint in the painting bays gradually built up on the tracks and skids that the car frames were painted on. Over time, many colorful layers built up there. These layers were hardened repeatedly in the ovens that the car bodies went into to cure the paint. Some of these deeper layers were even baked 100 times. Eventually, the paint build-up would become obstructing, or too thick and heavy, and had to be removed.

As the story goes, some crafty workers with an eye for beauty realized that this unique byproduct was worth salvaging. It was super-cured, patterned like psychedelic agate, and could be cut and polished with relative ease! Wow!

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Perhaps we should reconsider the name?

July 4, 2007

Today is the Fourth of July, and a day on which Americans are encouraged to cook out, enjoy the sun, and engage in a little bit of unashamed national pride as they celebrate Independence Day. Today, however, I haven’t been able to really get into the spirit of the thing. How can any American stand tall with their head up, knowing that the Swiss, of all people, have won the greatest race in yachting, once again depriving America of the cup that bears her name.

The America’s Cup was founded in 1851, and first held off of the coast of the Isle of Wight. Originally named the Royal Yacht Squadron Cup, the trophy was renamed in honor of the America, the boat that won the race its first year. What is now known as the America’s Cup is the oldest active trophy in international competition in any sport. It predates the modern Olympics, which didn’t begin until either 1859 or 1895, depending on your definitions.

From the America’s victory in 1851, the cup was held by not only an American yacht club, but by the same single yacht club, until 1983, constituting the longest winning streak in any sport. Following a 132 year unbeaten record, a loss is hard to take. Even worse, the United States has not produced a winner at all since 1992. A 15 year losing streak is more than my sense of national honor is prepared to tolerate.

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Immortal Mechanics

July 1, 2007

The movie National Treasure was on television this evening. Dana and I had been talking about the film for a couple of days before hand, and when we saw that it would be showing tonight, it seemed fitting to watch it. I had never seen the movie before, and having done so, I found that it triggered in me a response I’ve had over and over again when I watch movies like this.

Have you ever driven a really old car that still ran like it was new? If so, how old was it? More importantly, how often had it been worked on, maintained, and had the oil changed over the course of its lifetime? Have you ever used a machine that had been left, oh, I don’t know, beneath the water table with a subway line running nearby to shake everything once every half an hour, for hundreds of years? Would you expect one to work if you found it? In spite of the obvious difficulties of these things, Hollywood script writers seem to take it for granted that centuries-old hydraulic and counterweight systems will work smoothly like the day they were designed, just as soon as the hero presses on the secret panel or inserts the long-lost key into the strange slot in the wall of an ancient tomb.

What is it about this sort of plot device that keeps it coming back over and over again? I enjoy suspending my disbelief in order to enjoy a film, but I have my limits. Asking me to think that some kind of counter-weighted, self-opening door system buried hundreds of feet beneath a city where the water table is less than twenty feet below the surface of the ground is going to be not only dry and dusty, but also fully functional nearly two hundred years after it was built? There is suspension of disbelief, and then there is a blatant disrespect for the most basic principals of engineering.

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Don’t Try This At Home

June 20, 2007

My life has been changed of late due to the discovery of a wonderful hair styling tool.  It’s called the “CHI Turbo,” and its effectiveness in straightening one’s hair is amazing.

Sadly, my post is not about hair styling, but about the warning labels affixed to hair styling and other implements in commerce. My CHI Turbo’s label contains several warnings.  One reads as follows: “In Canada, not for household use!”  I suppose this means I will be in violation should I travel to Canada with my CHI.  And why, I ask, is it unwise, or even illegal, for me to use the tool in Canada but not in Raleigh, NC? 

Anyone who has purchased household items of late will have encountered the warning labels that have become a part of our lives. The ubiquitous warnings on bed pillows are of particular interest. “DO NOT REMOVE UNDER PENALTY OF DEATH!” reads the tag on most pillows. It makes me think that going to sleep in the comfort of one’s pillows is a dangerous act if one’s sense of feng shui requires label removal before installation. 

And there is what I think of as the “lawn mower” warning. This is a pictorial story in the owner’s manual of my new lawn mower, indicating that using one’s lawn mower as a hedge trimmer is a bad thing (picture of lawn mower shaving a hedge, encircled in red with a red diagonal slash). Who, I ask, would think to use the lawn mower as a hdege trimmer? And who could wield the mower thusly? I can barely push the mower around my small flat plot of turf, much less thrust it into the air to attack a privet hedge. 

Returning to grooming tools of a personal nature, my hair dryer also came equipped with various warning notices regarding electrocution. These mostly have to do with the warning about not drying one’s hair while soaking in the bath tub, a multitasking effort that most certainly leads to a bad end.

Finally, back to the CHI Turbo. Its prohibitive labels are graphic in the extreme. One of them indicates that one should not use the CHI (which is heated to a very high temperature, I must admit) to straighten one’s eyebrows. Whether in Canada or not, I think this is a very bad idea. It makes me wonder (and not for the first time) how Homo sapiens has made it as far as we have.

-posted by B Barron

Getting back what you put in

June 10, 2007

Several weeks ago, I packed up all of my worldly possessions and moved them nearly 750 miles from Southeast Michigan to central North Carolina. Part of this process involved driving a seventeen-foot U-Haul truck, fully loaded and towing my car on a trailer, through the mountains. I found this process to be highly unsatisfying, but also thought-provoking.

For perspective, U-Haul lists this vehicle as being more than eight thousand pounds empty. Fully loaded, it weighs in at just about fourteen thousand pounds. In addition, the trailer is more than two thousand pounds empty, with a more than three thousand pound car riding on top of it. The effect is a fourteen thousand pound vehicle with a five thousand pound sea anchor hanging off the back. Driving a vehicle this size through the mountains is enough to make anyone develop a multiple-personality disorder. Going uphill, I would simply lay the accelerator flat against the floor, then listen to the engine roar even while the speedometer steadily dropped beneath the sheer mass of the vehicle behind it. Going downhill, I’d stand on the brakes and try not to think about the feeling of the massive, dead weight of the trailer cramming itself up into the small of my back.

Each time I rode the brakes down a hill and then listened to a huge, gas-guzzling engine wheezing as it struggled to heave itself back up the hill, I found myself thinking about regenerative braking. Even though it would not be the kind of thing that is even included on a vehicle of that type, such a thing felt like it would be exactly what I needed. I spent several hours thinking about the efficiency of regenerative braking systems.

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HP Sucks!

May 26, 2007

I am seriously upset with the Hewlett-Packard Company for their declining product quality and recent changes in their policy for dealing with warranty issues. Historically, I have been a big HP fan. I bought their first (and several more recent) calculator and their first ink-jet printer and have bought many of their laser printers for my home and business. HP had carefully built up a reputation for quality and service from their beginning in electronic instrumentation and kept it as they moved into calculators and printers. However, my recent experience indicates that they have abandoned their focus on quality and have compounded that mistake by also abandoning their reputation for service. 

In March I bought a new HP Deskjet 9800 printer (11 X 17 inkjet printer) to replace a similar one I had been using for about 4 years in my office and had finally just worn out. Ten days ago that new printer just quit working and sent my computer a message that it had a “carriage fault”. There was nothing I could see wrong with the printer so I took it to my local independent computer repair shop. They reported that it did, in fact, have a carriage fault caused by a broken carriage belt and attachment point and that they could not fix it because HP would not sell them repair parts. When I called HP they said warranty repairs were handled by sending the broken printer to HP and they would fix it and send it back in 3 to 6 weeks.  When I protested that this offer was completely unacceptable since I could not shut my business down for a month waiting for them to repair the printer, they offered that I could pay them $50 to send a refurbished (I think this means “previously broken”) printer and then I could send my printer back in the same box. It seems to me that HP has tried to increase their short-term profits by making cheap printers and living off their reputation for quality. That resulted in a lot of warranty claims so they are attempting to reduce that expense by making it difficult to get warranty service (no local shop service, just mail in your printer at your expense) and hoping most people will not pursue a claim.

Obviously, I won’t continue to be an HP customer and will take every opportunity to discuss how unhappy I am with their quality and service. What is the leadership team at HP thinking? I am thinking I will have to figure out which other printer company to buy from.